Have you ever stood on a mountaintop or gazed up from the bottom of a roaring waterfall or sat in a field staring at the stars above? Did it inspire in you a feeling of insignificance? Where do you go to seek out those humble yet peaceful moments when you come face-to-face with a world larger than you? Nature is a place of spirituality for many. Yet because of the climate crisis, nature as we know it is dying out. Wildfires, algae blooms, mass extinction. We’re watching life on Earth disappear right before our eyes. It’s not just that our homes are threatened, although that is true. The loss of nature makes us feel like we are losing something essential to our humanity. Is there a correlation between our suffering planet and our spiritual despair?
What if I told you that our very idea of nature is responsible for environmental destruction? And what if upholding this concept of nature is exactly what’s causing us to feel disconnected from our physical world? Maybe, living in a world without nature is the very thing needed to save our planet. The concept of nature has been ingrained into our culture with the help of art and literature. Artists and writers interpret the landscapes they deem beautiful throughout their work.
The inspiring beauty of the Simplon Pass in the Swiss Alps whispered to poet William Wordsworth. He wrote that “black drizzling crags” and “unfettered clouds” were “like the workings of one mind.” In their own view through the environment, the poet encountered God. Rural Massachusetts had a similar effect on Henry David Thoreau. In 1862, he published an essay in The Atlantic entitled “Walking” about the benefits of spending time outdoors. He wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day… sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” He encouraged people to take up this same habit, especially those who spend their days in the city hunched over a desk or, like many of us, in front of a computer screen. You must be sure your walk takes place in the dense forests or untilled fields because, in Thoreau’s words, “roads are made for horses and men of business.”
We go to nature to find tranquility and a much-needed break from our hectic lives. But where, exactly, is this nature we go to? And is it such a bad thing if nature as you know it doesn’t exist? These are frightening questions to confront. Why is that? Think about your daily routine. You wake up, check your email or socials, and drink your coffee or tea or water during your commute. Or you might pull on a pair of sweatpants with an old shirt and log on to your morning Zoom meetings. You bemoan the endless hours you spend scrolling through social media. On most nights, you grab takeout, unable to find time to cook. You go to bed tired and wake up the following day to do it all over again. Amidst your everyday routine, do you ever encounter the sublime? You probably don’t have time, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know where to find it in your everyday surroundings.
Those soaring and soul-feeding emotions are reserved for the family trip to the Grand Canyon or your weekend hike in the redwood forests. In the meantime, though, we push those emotions aside. You might finally feel at home in the world when you’re standing in front of the expansive ocean. It’s difficult to harness that feeling while you’re waiting for the bus in the middle of a blizzard. We use the natural world for recreation. Let’s consider that word for a second. Re-creation. Nature is where we go when we’re broken to become whole again. But the benefits of nature are exclusive and reserved for those who can afford it. A lot of people are not able to take a vacation from their jobs or don’t have the means to get out of the city for the weekend.
There’s a conception that nature is a common good. The stream belongs to no one. The fall foliage of the forest is for everyone to enjoy. Only those with money and enough free time can enjoy the wilderness. If nature doesn’t exist and if for many people it's inaccessible, where do we turn to find inner peace in our otherwise chaotic world? Let’s back up a second. When I say nature doesn’t exist, I mean that the concept of nature was invented by people. This might seem counterintuitive. We think of nature as the only place left on Earth untouched by human hands, but maybe that is by design. Let me explain. Our idea of ‘nature’ exists inside marked boundaries and places blocked off where we’ve decided society shouldn’t be. And in that way, nature is just as constructed as town and urban centers.
When early colonists came to the Americas, they were faced with a daunting challenge. They were determined to transform a land of dense forests, impenetrable mountains and roaring rivers into their concept of a functioning place. For their society to work, they needed to harvest and pillage the land for resources, to build homes, roads and farms to sustain the newly arrived European populations. There was also a demand for goods native to these lands back home. Things like sugar, coffee and furs were imported and exported, creating a global system of trade. The task at hand must have felt insurmountable. It’s hard for us to truly grasp the awe early settlers felt coming across this vast expanse of untouched and seemingly empty wilderness with their ambitious goals in mind. Only, the land was not exactly untouched and it was definitely far from empty. Indigenous peoples cared for and tended to the land for thousands of years before European arrivals. Not to mention the countless species of birds, plants, fish and all other creatures that harmoniously composed a complex system of life.
Early colonists understood wilderness as an obstacle to their goal of establishing an orderly civilization in the new world. Their idea of society did not account for the vibrant life already thriving for millennia prior to their arrival. The invention of nature did not happen consciously. The ideals and goals early settlers imported from their homes overseas required that the vast wilderness of the new continent be tamed. Their philosophy was in direct odds with Indigenous teachings that rely on a holistic understanding of people’s place in relation to their environment. As Indigenous cultures were systematically destroyed or wiped out, this wisdom was being buried because it threatened the project of building a society that would more closely resemble European cities.
From the perspective of early colonists, society is built and maintained by people, whereas nature encompasses all that is outside the human domain. This idea informs how you understand the world today. When you’re at home, at work, at the store, you feel as if you are in society. You are contained by the infrastructure built by people, such as roads and buildings. When you’re camping in the woods, you feel you are in nature. The trees exist for their own sake. You turn to nature to feel free from the confines of civilization. Nature even feels like a unified and coherent place to most of us. We say things like, “I think I’ll spend this weekend out in nature” or “I hear British Columbia has beautiful nature” in conversation without a second thought. This phrasing flattens any distinctions in a landscape. The Amazon rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef are both considered nature, but that label ignores the particular ecology of each environment on Earth.
‘Nature’ strips uniqueness from the world. Using this term causes us to overlook the nuances and details inherent in life on Earth. Each tree becomes the same as the others. Once you’ve seen one squirrel, you’ve seen them all. If we are so flippant about nature in our language, we further entrench our misguided beliefs. Our idea of nature only implies a vast elsewhere free from our everyday baggage. Nature, in this context, simply refers to where society is not. National parks, camping grounds, and large expanses of private property. These areas exemplify how borders have been drawn by people to contain a place to be called ‘nature’ that is seperated from society. Nature is the place we have created to escape what we consider our greatest invention, the society we live in every day.
We are alienated from our need to connect to the Earth on a daily basis because we don’t believe true ‘nature’ exists where we spend most of our lives. We have this idea that our ‘real home’ exists elsewhere. Think of Thoreau needing to divorce himself from society in order to find what he called ‘spiritual fulfillment’ on his daily walk. If we can only connect with the most precious parts of ourselves when we are in a faraway ‘nature’, what happens to our spirit in the day-to-day? Why have we created a society we wish to escape? Can’t there be a way to live without needing to turn to nature to do our true soul searching? The consequence of upholding ‘nature’ is that the landscape where we actually live the majority of our lives becomes cheap in comparison.
We rarely consider that the world directly outside our front door is connected to the global system of life in the exact way as a forest or a lake. There are ecosystems within our cities and suburbs. And they are beautiful too. The best part is we are an integral species within these webs of life.
In the early 1960s, environmentalist Peter Berg was thinking a lot about this. To Berg and his friends, it became clear that people should take cues from their local ecosystem and should consider their place within them. He advocated for bioregionalism. It’s a philosophy that suggests political, cultural and economic systems are more sustainable and just if they are organized to include the ecology of the immediate physical environment. In this formation of the world, a boundary between nature and society is redundant. Bioregionalism relies on the interconnectedness of all systems of life, those created by humans and those that exist outside the human domain. The construction of human activity should be in harmony with the systems of the Earth.
Acknowledging and interacting with your immediate environment will make you more at home in the world. You could try your best to eat local and pay attention to the growing seasons where you live. You will notice the food tastes better because you are eating it when the harvests are most nourishing. As the days get shorter in winter, maybe in the long evenings, you'll rest. It could be that Earth is giving you more darkness because you need it. On your daily walk to school or work, what plants do you notice? You might not know the names of them, but how do they change throughout the seasons? Noticing is the gateway to curiosity. When you pay attention to what kind of birds are fluttering outside your window or the squirrels hopping from branch to branch, it’s difficult to miss the abundant life surrounding you every day.
Noticing isn’t easy. It takes practice to break the habit of not noticing. We’re so used to walking with our heads down, eyes on the sidewalk. It’s common to take what surrounds us every day for granted. It also takes time to notice. Think about the yearly cycle of a tree. From one day to the next, you can’t expect to see the leaves turn and fall or the buds emerge and blossom. But if you observe the same tree every day over the course of weeks, months and years, you will witness its full cycle revolve in front of your eyes.
Directing your attention toward your bioregion can help combat loneliness and social alienation. When you have a relationship to the land where you live and work you are part of something greater than yourself. We need to treat our homes with the same reverence we grant the most beautiful and pristine landscapes on Earth. By doing this, we will become better stewards of the Earth, because we will learn to foster a deep connection to land without seeking it elsewhere.
In other words, Nature is wherever you can find it.